A Long September
Fans of 90’s music will undoubtedly recall the Counting Crows song, “A Long December,” which promised “there’s reason to believe this year will be better than the last.”
In Washington, it’s almost September and, well, unfortunately there is not much reason to believe this fall will be better than the last. Congress has several pieces of legislation that must be finished before the clock strikes midnight on Oct. 1 and the two parties do not seem to agree on most of them.
Let’s take a look at what will occupy lawmakers’ time during this long September and how each of those debates might end.
Fiscal Year 2024 Appropriations Bills
As we have previously outlined, House and Senate lawmakers must enact 12 appropriations bills before the end of September or the federal government will face a partial government shutdown. (We say partial because certain programs and agencies will not be shuttered no matter what happens. The Department of Defense will still operate, for example, and Social Security checks will continue to go be sent to recipients, though they may be a little late arriving in accounts or mailboxes.)
By the time they had left for August recess, the two chambers of Congress had agreed to…exactly zero of the 12 spending bills.
The Senate will be in session for just 17 days in September. The House has only 12 legislative days on the calendar next month. That means there is about zero chance most, or even any, of these bills make it to President Joe Biden’s desk as standalone pieces of legislation before the clock strikes midnight on October 1.
The best option to avoid a partial government shutdown is for Congress to approve a short-term continuing resolution (CR) that will keep federal programs and agencies funded for a specific, but short amount of time. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, a Democrat, already has said he will urge members of his party to support a CR through November. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, also has suggested that is the best path forward.
Good news, right? Not so fast. Speaker McCarthy will first have to convince the conservative Freedom Caucus to go along.
That task will be a tough one. The Hill reported, “Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) told Fox News Digital last week that Republicans should use support for a continuing resolution as leverage to advance GOP priorities. If that does not come to fruition, however, he said ‘I’m not certain that I would at this point’ when asked if he would support a stopgap bill.”
Supplemental Funding Request
Members of Congress had barely left for their August recess when President Biden added to their already-massive September to-do list.
Specifically, the president wants lawmakers to approve more than $40 billion in additional spending for fiscal year 2023 (the fiscal year that ends at the end of this September). The request includes about $24.1 billion as the next round of assistance for Ukraine in its two-year effort to repel a Russian invasion and billions for disaster response for domestic events like floods, wildfires, and hurricanes, along with border security.
This request will bring on even more rancor between the two parties. In fact, many Republicans balked at the scale of the bill — and, more specifically, the request for Ukraine.
As the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call noted, “A new round of aid faces resistance from a bloc of restive House conservatives who fear money going to waste at the expense of domestic needs. When the House passed its fiscal 2024 defense authorization bill last month, 70 Republicans voted for a defeated amendment by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., that would have prohibited any more U.S. assistance to Ukraine.”
An ”F” for Farm Bill, FAA, and Flood Insurance Reauthorization?
Authorizing legislation for three other big-ticket items — the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the Farm Bill — is also on the agenda for this fall. If Congress does not act on these pieces of legislation, it could mean longer lines at airports, that families and businesses dealing with fallout from natural disasters wait longer to get compensated just as hurricane season is upon us, and that payments to farmers and nutrition assistance program recipients are delayed.
In August, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) conceded that Congress probably would not finish work on the Farm Bill in September, which means, here again, Democratic and Republican leaders are hoping for a short-term reauthorization. And, according to Roll Call, lawmakers might actually have up to another three months to settle this issue. Roll Call reported that it is not until Jan. 1, 2024 that some farm policy would revert to controls on production and costly price supports adopted in the 1940s. (The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could continue to operate without an extension if appropriators provide funding, Roll Call said.)
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has acknowledged the committee is now operating with a Dec. 31 deadline, not an end-of-September one. Even with the extra three months, the two parties will not have an easy time coming to agreement on this legislation. Some Republicans want to cut Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funding and repurpose nearly $20 billion in funding the U.S. Department of Agriculture is supposed to use for conservation programs to address climate change. Democrats, of course, are unlikely to agree to those demands.
Which brings us to the skies. If you think FAA reauthorization might be free from partisan or intraparty disagreement, think again. The House version of this bill includes a provision that would raise the mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots from the current 65 to 67. The Air Line Pilots Association, the labor union that represents pilots, opposes this provision and, according to Reuters, is lobbying members of Congress to vote against any reauthorization bill that includes it.
The AFL-CIO, a big supporter of Democrats running for Congress, also opposes the retirement age increase. While the House version of the bill was approved unanimously by the House committee that wrote it, it will be hard for Democrats in tough election fights to support this provision if it makes it in the final FAA reauthorization bill.
If the prospect of flight delays or a government is not enough to bring the two parties together, how will they handle the prospect of an expiring National Flood Insurance Program in the middle of a hurricane season?
On this piece of legislation, thank goodness, there is some hope. A bipartisan group of both senators and House members has written legislation to renew the program for five years. Still, even with this agreement, that bill is massive and the insurance industry is pushing for significant reforms. To make the Sept. 30 deadline, it is likely lawmakers will have to again pass a short-term reauthorization before they tackle the longer-term legislation.
All to say: across the board, it looks likely that Congress will, as it so often does, kick the can down the road in the next few weeks by passing short-term extensions of existing programs and funding bills. In so doing, Congress will set the stage for massive policy bruhahas in December – a storied and predictable Washington tradition.
Americans Fed Up With Congress?
While there is a lot of media attention regarding President Biden’s approval rating — and what that rating could portend for his reelection — there is less focus on how Americans feel about Congress.
Perhaps because the news is just so bad.
According to Gallup’s tracking poll, only 19 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. That number has not shifted much in the last two years. In July 2021, for example, just 26 percent of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing.
It was not so long ago, though, that federal lawmakers enjoyed better reputations among voters. Congress’ approval soared to more than 80 percent right after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists attacks, for example, and remained above 40 percent for two entire years. Americans’ approval of Congress began to plummet in March 2009 as Republicans and Democrats tried to deal with the fallout from the Great Recession.
What about congressional leaders? Do they fare better than Congress as a whole?
Somewhat. According to Pew Research Center, “the job ratings for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (34 percent approve) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (32 percent approve) are comparable to Biden’s. Both congressional leaders get fairly mixed ratings from members of their own party and largely negative ratings from the opposing party.”
Congress might be able to improve its standing if federal lawmakers focused on issues that majorities of both Republican and Democratic voters care about. According to the Pew Research Center, that list of issues includes rising prices for all manner of products, drug addiction, violent crime, and health care affordability.
Additionally, 62 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans told Pew they want the two parties to work on a fifth problem: the ability of the two parties to work together.
Chances Congress will take that prompt? Don’t hold your breath during this long September.